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Saturday, April 28, 2012

Dinners by Design ~ Week #2 (Erin C.)

Each week, one lucky blog reader will be selected to receive a customized meal plan using the current contents of their pantry, fridge and freezer. After "working my magic", I will supply between 6-8 dinner meal ideas using no more than $10 in additional ingredients. My goal in doing this series is to teach people how to be resourceful, creative and frugal while still planning delicious and healthy meals for their families. If you would like to be featured in the "Dinners by Design" blog series, please check out the details at the bottom of this post.

Meet Erin C.

In addition to being a wife and stay-at-home mom of one, Erin is also my little sister. (Don't worry, the winner was selected completely at random...no favoritism was shown just because she's family!) Erin describes herself as "the kind of person who spends an hour and a half to two hours at the grocery store and comes home without anything to eat." Haha! I'm pretty sure what she means is that she goes shopping and buys groceries, but still can't figure out what to make for dinner with the items she bought. Maybe you can relate? Erin is comfortable cooking from a recipe, but likes the convenience that packaged foods offer. Judging from the list she gave me, I'd say that "quick and easy" recipes are a MUST for this trying-to-eat-healthier family.

With that being said, I went ahead and crossed out the items from Erin's list that I would not be using in her dinner design. I know she wants to cook more "real food" and get away from the processed stuff, so my goal was to show her how that can be accomplished without relying on heat-and-eat freezer foods. While those items are fine to use in a pinch, and probably healthier than take out, I didn't feel they were optimal choices for me to use in her dinner design. Here is the list that Erin provided for me to use in creating her meals...

  • tuna
  • dry beans (black, pinto, great northern)
  • lots of variety of pastas
  • brown rice
  • vegetable oil
  • canned pumpkin
  • all baking supplies
  • spices/herbs/ etc.
  • Alfredo sauce
  • spaghetti sauce
  • tomato juice
  • diced tomatoes
  • stewed tomatoes
  • tomato paste
  • tomato sauce
  • canned veggies (green beans, peas, corn, cream style corn)
  • cream of mushroom and cream of chicken soup
  • broth (chicken, beef and vegetable)
  • pancake mix
  • pizza crust mix
  • bread
  • peanut butter
  • marshmallows
  • honey


  • veggies (peas, corn, carrots, green beans, peppers from the garden, mixed veggies)
  • boneless skinless chicken breasts
  • ground chuck
  • hamburger patties
  • bacon
  • french fries
  • chicken nuggets
  • chicken fries
  • fish sticks
  • dinner rolls
  • garlic bread
  • Cool Whip


  • milk
  • eggs
  • butter
  • apples
  • bananas
  • lettuce
  • tomatoes
  • carrots
  • potatoes
  • onion
  • cheeses (Colby, Parmesan, mozzarella, Mexican, cheddar)
  • Velveeta
  • all the standard condiments
  • minced garlic
  • sour cream
Erin was looking forward to seeing "what I could do with the wide variety of tomatoes" she had in her kitchen.

Working My Magic and Creating the Meals

When looking at Erin's list, one of the first things I noticed was quite a few frozen, heat-and-eat foods like I mentioned earlier. On the other hand, she had a wide variety of tomato products in the pantry and loads of veggies in the freezer. Those two things are great building blocks for healthy meals! Add in the beans, lean beef/chicken, and some pasta or rice and PRESTO--tasty, healthy meals! It was time to dig out some quick and easy recipes and do some menu magic.

You can click on any linked meal to see that particular recipe. Listed underneath each meal, you will see what we are using from her current stash of foods and what she will need to purchase separately. All recipes make enough for at least 4 adults, leaving Erin and her family with some leftovers for another meal. Cooking once and eating twice means my brother-in-law gets a break from his nightly dish washing duties. You're welcome, Chad!

# 1  "Unstuffed" Peppers

What she's using up:  ground chuck (1/2 lb.), black beans, green bell peppers, tomatoes, brown rice, cheese, spices.

What she needs to buy: nothing

# 2  Cobb Dinner Salads

Photo credit: All Recipes

What she's using up: boneless skinless chicken breasts (2 grilled), lettuce, tomato, corn (optional), cheese, Ranch dressing, eggs (2 boiled), bacon (4 slices)

What she needs to buy: avocado (optional)

# 3  Chicken Supreme with Gravy, Green Beans and Crustless Pumpkin Pie (GF)

Chicken Supreme with Gravy Recipe
Photo credit: Taste of Home

What she's using up: boneless chicken breasts (3-4), bread, onions, apples, butter, spices, canned soup, milk, chicken broth, green beans, canned pumpkin, eggs, sugar or honey, vanilla

What she needs to buy: celery, evaporated milk or half-n-half

# 4  Pasta Carbonara

Quick Pasta Carbonara
Photo credit: Kraft Foods

What she's using up: bacon, pasta, milk, misc. frozen veggies, garlic

What she needs to buy: cream cheese

# 5  Taco Soup (Crockpot)

What she's using up: ground chuck (1/2 lb.), beans, tomatoes, spices, onion, cheese, sour cream

What she needs to buy: tortilla chips (optional)

# 6  Pepperoni Pizza Monkey Bread w/ Marinara Sauce, Raw Veggies & Ranch Dip

Pinned Image
Photo credit: Confections of a
Foodie Bride

What she's using up: pizza crust mix (or make homemade crust w/flour, olive oil, yeast, water & salt), pepperoni, tomato sauce, garlic, spices, mozzarella cheese, *carrots, sour cream, ranch seasoning mix (make with pantry spices)

What she needs to buy: *1-2 raw veggies for dipping (ex. cucumber, green bell pepper or broccoli), *celery (also used in recipe #3)

*Use 3-4 veggies for dipping (carrots, celery and 1-2 others). Leftover raw veggies can be used for lunches or use for making side salads to serve with "Unstuffed" Peppers, Taco Soup or Pasta Carbonara (if desired).

Erin's Shopping List
  • celery
  • avocado (optional)
  • 1-2 fresh veggies of choice
  • 8 oz. can evaporated milk or pint of half-n-half
  • 8 oz. package of cream cheese
  • Tortilla chips (optional)  *We like Garden of Eatin' brand blue corn chips.

Total cost approximately $6 without optional ingredients and $10 with them.

Prepare Ahead For Quicker Meals This Week

Here are some ideas of prep-ahead tasks Erin could do this week, to reduce the amount of time it takes to get dinner on the table. These could all be done in a few hours over the weekend or she could do a couple prep tasks each day while her daughter is napping or at night before she goes to bed.
  • Cook 1 lb. of ground chuck, divide into 2 equal portions & refrigerate.
  • Soak one pound bag of black beans overnight in crockpot full of water. Drain water in the morning, add new water and cook on low for 4-6 hours or until tender. You'll need 4 cups this week and the rest can be frozen in meal size portions.
  • Cook rice and refrigerate until needed. You'll need about 1 to 1.5 cups and the rest can be frozen in small quantities for other meals.
  • Chop onions and celery and place in containers in the fridge. You'll need about 1 c. of chopped onion (2 recipes) and 3/4 c. chopped celery.
  • Cook 8 slices of chopped bacon (reserving bacon drippings in a small container for Pasta Carbonara recipe). Split bacon up for 2 separate recipes. What's left of the pkg. of bacon could be saved for a breakfast.
  • Cook and refrigerate 8 oz. of pasta (reheat for Pasta Carbonara by placing in colander under hot running water or microwaving).
  • Grill 2 chicken breasts for Cobb Dinner Salads (or add 2 extra to the crockpot, when doing the task listed below).
  • Dice 3-4 chicken breasts and place in crockpot with a little water and cook 4-6 hours or until no longer pink in the middle. You'll need 3 c. for Chicken Supreme with Gravy recipe. Any leftover could be frozen for another meal or added to a tortilla for an easy lunchtime wrap.
  • Lay out 10 slices of bread to "stale up" for a few hours, then cut into one inch cubes and place in pantry or fridge until needed.
  • Mix up taco seasoning and Ranch seasoning mixes & store in pantry.
  • Chop lettuce and tomato for Cobb Dinner Salads, store in fridge.
  • Hard boil eggs for Cobb Dinner Salads (or boil extra for grab-and-go snacks or to make egg salad for lunches).
  • Cut up raw veggies (like cucumbers, carrots or broccoli) for dipping or salads. Store in sealed containers or storage bags with a bit of water, so they don't dry out.

If you would like to have dinners designed for your family, please comment on this blog post (include your real name so I can contact you!) or send an e-mail with subject line "Dinners by Design" to these_precious_days@yahoo.com by Monday at midnight and tell me why your family should be selected as next week's winner. If you are chosen to be featured in the next "Dinners by Design", you will have until Wednesday at noon to submit a list of the fridge, freezer and pantry items you wish for me to use in creating your meal plan. (That gives you a chance to run to the store and stock the fridge so I have more to work with than mayo, a can of beer and some moldy berries! LOL!)


  1. Love these ideas! Making the chicken supreme and the pasts carbona....I have everything for them!!!

    1. Let me know what you think of them! :)

  2. Thanks for all the great recipes Ash. It will cost me even less at the store because we have tortilla chips (guess I forgot to tell you about our chip collection) and cream cheese. The prep tips are great. I hate how long it takes to actually make stuff sometimes.

  3. Actually, I would love to be chosen. Why? Every since David returned from deployment and I've gotten a 'gym' life I don't have as much time to devote to the house, the meal planning, and well I'm feeling like nothing ever gets done. Kinda overwhelming. I'm looking for GF or less gluteen options. I'm looking for ways to sneak veggies in as I have 2 that will not touch them and one I'm married to! I'm also look for low-cal, I don't need 600+ calorie meals, however I want them healthy - none that low fat no fat stuff, which I think you totally get. If anything can be made that I can freeze and have for lunch at another date that would be cool too. Something to make my now busy life a little less...busy. =) Thanks Ashley!

    1. Well, Tonya...you are a shoe-in at this point because NO ONE else has signed up! LOL I will put your name in the hat. Good luck!

  4. Okay, I'll make it official...I want to be included...I'm signing myself up! :)HELP ME! lol!

    1. There you go! Now you're in the game! LOL I'm putting your name in the hat, Christy. Thanks for coming back to "officially" enter the contest. :)

  5. Sign me up! Mark and I try to eat fairly healthy (I mean, that's probably true.) I have great intentions and try to meal plan, but as the days get busy and I am tired, I am more inclined to go for something quick and easy, like fast food or convenience foods. We have a lot of good bones in our food supply, I think, (we butcher our own meat and preserve veggies from our garden) but just need a little help and some ideas on how to make quality meals on a budget and quickly. Thanks! Megan Gariety

    1. You butcher your own meat?! For real? That is the coolest thing I have heard all day! :) I'm putting you in the drawing, Megan. Thanks for stopping by!

  6. Sign me up as well. We are trying to cut spending to build up savings, so I'm looking for ways to use what we already have. Tera

  7. Had the pizza bites tonight. I followed the link from the monkey bread style to where she got the original from because I don't have a bundt pan. Chad and Cora both liked them. Chad and I were discussing adding more filling and possibly other stuff to them next time. Cora wants to add "peas and green beans would be good". Dispite my battle with the crust/dough (I followed the directions on my Jiffy box, don't know what happened), we will definatley have these again. Question: I opened my jar of pizza sause for dipping, but there is about half left. Can I freeze it for next time?

    1. Yep! You can freeze it right in the glass jar or pour into a ziploc bag and freeze. Glad you liked them. I haven't made them yet, personally. I have a very easy homemade dough recipe that uses flour, salt, yeast, water and olive oil. Let me know if you want it! :) What kind of pan did you use? Pizza and peas...mmm! She is definitely from our family, huh?! LOL

    2. I used a round deep dish plate, similar to a pie plate. Definatley put more inside than the recipe calls for, the filling was a little lacking.

  8. Good to know! I have been wanting to make them for awhile now. I will do cubes of mozzerella because I have a block of it and maybe 2 pc. of pepperoni. I have a bundt pan, so I will probably use that. I have that on the menu for Friday night. Mmmm... :)